Happy Valentine’s Day! Let’s celebrate with a movie about lust-driven attempted homicide –for kids!
(And, for anyone wondering, the reason why I have not updated recently was because my old laptop was crashing every few minutes.)
After the critical and boxoffice disappointment of Pocahontas, Disney released another risky, very mature, artistically original film, this time an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, Notre-Dame de Paris. I can only imagine the trepidation at the Disney studio at the time of its release. When they realized that, no, actually, the public does not love their new direction, it was too late to do anything about Hunchback. And, in the end, the response to the lavish animated spectacle was lukewarm, with audiences confused by the dark and sexual nature of the plot. The movie cost around $100,000,000 to produce, and it did make a profit and Roger Ebert gave it four stars. But, I think it’s been the movies lasting power and success compared to extravaganzas like The Lion King which lead some people to see this as a failure. And, by some people, I also mean the studio. Whatever direction the company was trying to move in, it definitely back-peddled hard, and this film has been considered one of the downward post-Renaissance slump movies.
I think that part of the trouble people have with this movie is trying to figure out what the target audience is supposed to be. The movie is really, really dark, starting out right away with the murder of a mother who is trying to protect her infant.
And, that’s just the beginning. The father-son relationship between the hero, Quasimodo, and the antagonist, Claude Frollo, is really twisted, even more so than the relationship between Rapunzel and Mother Gothel. The movie also deals with discrimination, and with rather more sophistication than Pocahontas, although I blame that on the fact that there isn’t an institutionalized anti-gypsy discrimination in the USA. Most Americans don’t really have much of a connection to the culture at all, as they form a very small minority, which is why Disney doesn’t have to worry about offending anyone while representing their culture.It’s also why TV shows like Hemlock Grove make no sense.
However, it’s the movie’s depiction of sexuality and violence which really sets the film apart as a truly dark and, honestly, strange Disney production.
The movie features an attempted burning at the stake, a mob, institutionalized discrimination, violent oppression, and even an attempted genocide. The depiction of gypsy relations works as an eerie analogue for Nazism and other forms of ethnic cleansing. But, what really sticks with audiences is Claude Frollo and his obsession with Esmeralda. It’s not just desire and ego, like Gaston’s jealous anger over Belle. No, Claude Frollo sees Esmeralda and is overcome with very explicit lust, which serves as his motivation for every horrible thing that follows in the story. This isn’t usual Disney, and the company would never again touch on this sort of subject.
So, what do I think of this story? Well, unlike Pocahontas, I actually would really defend this film as flawed (very, very flawed, but we’ll get to that) but powerful. First, let’s look at the art. If Hunchback has one unquestionably solid attribute, that would be the animation. The art design is brilliant, the most mature and honestly least-Disney to date.
The characters are even more angular and realistic than those in Pocahontas, and the studio also used shadows to create more 3D appearances and expression, a technique you see in quite a bit of anime. The movement is also spectacular, perhaps even more so than its predecessor, since the film has scenes of acrobatics and dancing that showcase the animator’s keen observation of human anatomy.
However, it is the scene design that everyone remembers, and rightly so. The representations of architecture, cityscapes, even the light of stained glass windows are so absolutely stunning in their design and accuracy that they have the power to dazzle audiences even to this day. The scene of Esmeralda praying in the cathedral are some of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of animation that the studio has ever produced. Furthermore, the illusion of camera angles, including soaring “crane shots” of Notre-Dame itself, are spectacular in their effect, and the use of CG blends seamlessly with the 2D animation in a way that rarely works this well.
I really have nothing negative to say about the art in this film. It is spectacular through-and-through. Even if every, single aspect of the film was a failure, the art would make it work viewing. Rather like the transformation scene in Cinderella, its visual power justifies its existence.
So, does this mean that it is another beautiful-looking film that does not hold up in the storytelling department, rather like the final release of The Thief and the Cobbler?
Actually, no. The movie succeeds on multiple levels. The first and most obvious would be the villain. Claude Frollo may be the greatest villain Disney has ever produced, and I don’t say that lightly because the studio has created some truly dynamic villains. He’s just so complex, even more so than our heretofore most human villain, Gaston. Frollo is motivated by a conviction that he is doing good, which makes him actually all that much more frightening. Goodness, for Frollo, is a code of ethics that gets very much intertwined with his own biases and desires. However, he justifies his prejudices and even his most barbaric acts, by conflating his beliefs with morality. When his conviction in his own moral superiority is threatened by his lust for Esmeralda, he decides that she is in fact to blame for his desires.
He persecutes her for witchcraft and for being sexually open, and even tries to have her murdered. The song “Hellfire”, one of the single most powerful moments of Disney animation, showcases Frollo’s conflict between his strict religious sensibilities, his confused sexuality, and his cold egomania. If he cannot have Esmeralda, he would destroy her, and within the song he justifies himself to a choir of faceless monks (representing his religious dogmatism) by blaming both Esmeralda and the temptations of satan.
In today’s political climate, I really can’t think of a Disney film that covers an issue that remains so timely and important. Conflicts generally are perpetrated by people believing that they are doing the right thing, or at least convincing themselves of this. Moreover, the creepy sexual politics of an authority figure trying to either own or destroy an object of desire are eerily familiar. There is a strong sense of a victim-blaming mentality in Frollo and how deeply uncomfortable he is with a beautiful woman who happens to be rather flamboyant with her looks. Furthermore, the movie shows that Esmeralda is a good, moral person, and the puritanical Frollo is the one obsessed with sexuality. That’s pretty heady stuff.
Another major plus, branching off from the Frollo discussion, is the music. The music is just really good. It moves from religious chant to Broadway-style numbers to pop ballads with wonderful continuity. Well, with one exception, “A Guy Like You”, but I’ll get to that in a minute. The choral moments are really lovely, dark, and powerful. “God Help the Outcasts”, Esmeralda’s song while she is in sanctuary in the cathedral, is a beautiful piece, and one which contrasts Esmeralda’s prayer for her oppressed people with the “health and wealth” morality of the more privileged worshippers. Some people have actually criticized this scene for being anti-religious, and I honestly have no idea how that could be. For one thing, it’s literally a prayer. That song is an actual prayer. Someone please tell me how praying is anti-religious. The scene, with lines like “Were you once an outcast, too?” directed at a statue of the Virgin Mary, intentionally creates a parallel between the oppressed people of the story and the Biblical story of Jesus and Mary. And, with Esmeralda praying before a religious statue, walking through lit candles, and singing “God help my people!”, I think we’d be hard pressed to find a more overtly religious depiction in any piece of children’s media. I think the criticism comes more from a sort of classism that sees the wealthy worshippers as somehow more religious than the poor gypsy girl, which… kind of makes me think this movie is right about more things than we’d like to admit. However, even that criticism is just wrong. While Esmeralda’s selflessness in her prayer(“I ask for nothing…” is a line) is definitely contrasted as the better prayer than the other requests in the church, the other characters are still quite sympathetic. They are seen as unhappy, and their prayers are more of a misguided attempt to find something meaningful than a condemnation for their selfishness. One woman tragically flings up her hands and asks for love. How is that not sympathetic?
Also, I’m pretty sure this scene is in the book and it is definitely in the 1939 version, where Esmeralda is even more explicitly contrasted with the other worshippers. In that version, she prays for God to take all she has as a sacrifice to save her people. So, if anything the Disney version is tame by comparison.
But, of course, it is”Hellfire” that takes the cake as the best song in the movie. Disney villain songs often tend to be the best, but this one is especially good. It’s not a very fun song, like “Be Prepared” or “Poor, Unfortunate Souls”, which are enjoyable to sing along with. No, this is honestly getting up there with some classic Broadway pieces as a complex song that is combined with a chanting, Gregorian-style choir. It begins with Frollo saying a prayer about his virtue and righteousness, very poised and self-collected, and then it slowly crumbles into emotional madness as he obsesses over his lust for Esmeralda. It’s powerful stuff, and maybe the most emotionally complex scene in Disney history. His prayer turns to real sexual confusion, asking why he is having these feelings. And, because of his own code and his own prejudices, he turns these desires into real moral agony and eventual murderous rage. By the time he starts to sing “Like fire, hellfire…” The song breaks down into both the character’s own moral fear and a deeply disturbed internal conflict of violence and lust. And, again, from Disney!
I really love how while Frollo sings “It’s not my fault!” and blames Esmeralda for his desires, the entire faceless-monk choir sings “Mea Culpa!”, which is Latin for “My fault”. This has further subtext, since the “Mea Culpa” of a Catholic Mass is a prayer of admitting one’s sins are, in fact, one’s own fault. This kind of complex religious dynamic is really unusual for any children’s movie, especially the House of Mouse.
And, I have to say that the scene when Frollo stars rubbing Esmeralada’s scarf all over his face is pretty damn creepy, the director giving us a no-holds-barred depiction of a sexual predator. Although, whenever I see it, I do start getting little Dario Argento flashbacks to his “Your female smell!” scene from that really weird, Italian Phantom of the Opera with all the rats…
So, with all this praise for the movie, you’d think that this would be my favorite Disney film. Well… no. Actually, it’s not.
The trouble is, when dealing with a story so dark, so unusual, so, well, not kid-friendly, Disney was having its own internal conflict. Disney is the happiest place in earth, right? And its image had become one of wholesome, family entertainment. It’s about finding your dreams and love and all that, not about creepy, old men obsessing over their own sexual repression and locking their disfigured adopted children in towers while plotting genocide. None of that screams Disney. So, Disney had two options for a consistent film: One, it could abandon the dark stuff and make a totally different movie or, Two, it could go all-out adult and make a really good, dark film.
They chose a third option: not to make a consistent movie.
So, this is where that Disney formula, the one about finding dreams, wanting more, true love, and cute/funny sidekicks comes in. Does it work? Oh, hell, no. No, it does not work at all.
Now, a little Disney optimism would be just fine. Even in the 1939 version a lot of the more depressing elements of the story were taken out. In the book, Esmeralda dies (oh, and she also gets raped, and not even by Frollo), and Quasimodo dies holding her dead body. The end.
It’s no surprise that Disney would make a happy ending, or make Quasimodo a sort of free-spirit, wanting-of-more Disney archetype, or cut out the whole rape thing. They also change Frollo’s occupation and really tone down the religious criticism from the book. In the novel, Frollo is a priest and the Catholic Church is heavily criticized. In the movie, Frollo’s occupation is secular and he just happens to be a religious nutjob, kind of like Glenn Beck (zinger!). Also, all the other religious characters are portrayed from benign to downright noble, and the ending shows everyone getting together and learning something about tolerance and acceptance.
In the book the main characters just die horribly and the Church comes across like an outdated institution of prejudice. Despite this heavy editing of the source material, some religious critics still found the movie objectionable, and I really cannot understand why. How much more removed from the source material would it have to be?
Anyway, some changes just make sense. I don’t expect Disney to go all Lars von Trier all of a sudden and execute our heroine.
But, Disney didn’t just make the movie happier and less religiously controversial. It went full-Disney, and it does not work at all. Basically the entire fault is with the sidekicks, who really, really kill the movie. These would be the gargoyles and Esmeralda’s goat, none of which should be prominent enough to ruin a movie about human drama, but there you have it. The gargoyle’s are based on the Three Stooges, itself a weird artistic choice, and they spend the entire movie cracking dumb jokes and singing horribly out-of-place songs like “A Guy Like You”. The humor doesn’t even make sense because “A Guy Like You” is about how Quasimodo is actually good-looking and can “get the girl”. What the hell, movie? And, it is big, over-the-top, ridiculous, like a rejected song from the Genie, and no one ever talks about it again.
And the gargoyles are in the whole movie! They aren’t even Quasimodo’s imaginary friends. They are very real and partake in the final fight scene, all the while making horrible jokes. Disney, we live in a Miyazaki world! Kids can and will watch movies with battle scenes that are just action sequences.
Honestly, I think that about halfway through Disney thought, “Wait, sexual predators and murder? What the fuck are we doing?” and started cramming stupid, kid-friendly moments in to make up for that. But, that really hurts the tone of the film, and ruins serious moments with stupid fantasy and an ongoing gag about how a gargoyle is in love with the goat… What the hell, movie? And this does the most harm to our romantic couple, Esmeralda and Phoebus, who in this version is her lover and not, you know, a rapist. To be fair, if I remember correctly, the ’39 version does the same thing. However, the lack of character development, especially when contrasted to the villain and main character, really makes these two seem kind of bland. Esmeralda looks amazing, with her great character design, and she does interesting things, like dance and stand up for others, but her personality is really not that interesting. She’s just kind of a Mary Sue, a beautiful, self-sacrificing woman who everyone is in love with. That’s not that interesting. And Phoebus is John Smith-dull, making Disney Prince-style quips and heroics that seem kind of out of place.
Quasimodo is also not really the most compelling character, although he’s better than our lovebirds. Yet again, we have a love triangle where the character who doesn’t “get the girl” (I know, it’s kind of a regressive concept in itself…) is the more interesting one. He’s upbeat and kind-hearted, and you do genuinely feel bad for him. I wouldn’t say he’s exactly an original character, though, since he seems pretty strongly influenced by The Elephant Man. But, that’s a great movie, so if you are going to borrow from someone, make it David Lynch.
Tonally, the movie is all over, from horrific to childish to blandly light-hearted to tragic, and the transitions basically don’t exist. I feel like the studio didn’t have enough confidence to believe in this project and really push their artistic boundaries. Instead, they held back, dumbed it down, and shied away from the real heart of the story. Which begs the question: why adapt this story at all?
Well… remember what I said about Disney’s relationship with the mega-musical and how influenced Beauty and the Beast is by Phantom? Well, what’s the other big, successful mega-musical everyone loves? Oh, yeah…
Huh, I wonder if that had anything to do with the decision? It’s only a Disney musical adaptation of a work by the same author, featuring mega-musical style songs and big-choral moments, just like that other music. But, I’m sure that in no way influenced the decision at all…
In the end, I think most people, and especially the studio, look at this movie as kind of a miss. This is too bad, really, because it has a lot of good. And, it’s also too bad because the studio learned exactly the wrong message and instead of deciding to make films more brave and more adult, they decided to abandon that idea and go with the funny, cutesy moments that actually were the real flaw with this movie. And, because of this, this is basically the end of the Disney Renaissance. Oh, they have one last hurrah, but it’s definitely a back-peddle from the direction they tried to go with Pocahontas and Hunchback. I don’t suppose we’ll ever get to see what Disney was going for with this brief foray into the mature and its break from its image. Which is too bad, because the idea was really interesting, even if the execution didn’t always pay off.
Oh, well, at least we have this, one big, beautiful, messy movie about sexual predators, murder, and genocide from the Happiest Place On Earth.